Yesterday two things brought back the memory of my night with the great Music Hall star Josephine Baker. First, June 3rd was her birthday: she was born 110 years ago in St Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a laundress and a vaudeville drummer. Second, I received a call from my old friend Shelia who reminded of that evening in April of 1972 when we went to the Royal York Hotel to see La Baker on stage.
It was during her career renaissance in the last years of her life that Josephine appeared at the Imperial Room – the premiere showroom in Toronto at the time. Sheila was an acquaintance of Louis Jannetta, the renowned maitre d’ of the Room and knowing I was an adoring fan she had arranged a ring-side table. After the first show, Shelia – who was never the shy one and had a flamboyant charm that disarmed men and women alike – cornered Mr Jannetta and said: We’d kill to met that woman! He laughed and assured her that murder, the ensuing mess of a trial, and possible incarceration wouldn’t be necessary; he would be more than happy to take us backstage after the second show. Her second show was a spectacular as the first – being Josephine it meant a costume change to something even more elaborate than her first ensemble.
Afterwards Mr Jannetta escorted us backstage and introduced me as her #1 fan in the city of Toronto. She greeted us with hugs and so much charm – I dare say not too many people had come back during the run. Sheila, being Sheila, grandly, and to my surprise I should add, asked if she’d like to join us in a glass of champagne and an omelette at Gason’s a great restaurant she knew of in the old Markham Village. Josephine laughing thanked us and said that after a show she enjoyed a cup of tea more than a glass of bubbly and that late nights were out of the question these days. She then turned to me and I remember it to this day said: Could you help an old lady on with her slippers, good sir? And there I was helping one of the legends of French Music Hall slip into comfortable shoes. I had loved her before then but loved her even more afterwards. She thanked me, gave me a kiss on either cheek and promised to send me an autographed photo.
Three years later I was doing a good deal of commuting between Toronto and Paris and had tickets to see her in a revue at the Bobino in the second week of its run. Celebrating her 50 years on the French stage it was “un grand retour” to Paris, the city of her first success. It became the hottest ticket in Europe and the media was filled with stories of her life and previous successes, and failures. The show opened on April 8, 1975 to rave reviews and was sold out for months. Four days later she was found in a coma lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing accounts of her performance. She died later that day.
Happy Birthday dearest Josephine. Thank you for making a young star struck man very happy and for giving an old man such a wonderful memory.